Coping with Epilepsy in the World of Education

by Kate Cory-Wright
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This is the first ever guest post on my blog and comes out of a private conversation with a fellow #Nightshift group member, Kate Cory-Wright, which began on 16 May. She was inspired by an interview I recently gave about my own mental health.  Like me, she has also suffered from panic attacks. She also has epilepsy, which I have no personal experience of.  Up until now she has mostly kept her epilepsy experience a secret. Only a handful of people know about her condition. She feels as if she has been hiding a huge part of herself for such a long time and would be judged harshly by the English Language Teaching community if she spoke up.  I’m honoured that she has chosen to share her story here. It is a powerful testimony from someone who prides herself on a fostering a professional image. In the run-up to its publication, she admitted that if this ever saw the light of day, you would be invited to celebrate with her. That time has come.  Phil.

Short Bio

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Kate Receiving ESU award

Kate is an award-winning ELT author. She has (co-) written over 25 ELT books and an e-learning course for teachers. She has published materials with National Geographic Learning, Cambridge University Press, Macmillan, as well as website materials for National Geographic Learning, Macmillan and Cengage / Epals.  The photo here shows Kate winning the English speaking Union award.

As an international Teacher Trainer, Kate has over 25 years experience. She has given over 500 academic seminars, workshops and short courses in regions as diverse as Latin America, Africa, The Middle East, and Asia.

Kate was born in London and began her professional life as an EFL/ESL teacher. She currently lives in the mountains of Ecuador and in her free time, gives classes to disadvantaged children.

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Kate Positive Quote

Introduction

This year is my 40th anniversary of living with epilepsy. To celebrate, I’ve decided to ‘come out of the closet’. It’s not easy. I rarely talk about it or tell people I have it. For years I’ve tried to write this blog, but each time it ends up in the trash. Each attempt evokes painful memories and fears. Fear that others will treat me differently. Fear of the stigma of epilepsy. At the same time, I know that not speaking up is doing others a disservice. Keeping quiet doesn’t help other people who suffer nor educators who want to know more. So, following the fine example of Phil Longwell, who is helping to bring mental health issues out into the open, I’m going to try once more to share my experiences. If this blog ever sees the light of day, please celebrate with me!

Kate’s Story

My story is just one of many. Around 1 in 26 people suffer from epilepsy and owing to the fact that there are more than 20 kinds of epilepsy, I don’t claim to speak for everyone. The only thing we all have in common are seizures, caused by a sudden electrical surge in the brain. This can affect our whole body (‘generalised seizures’), causing us to fall on the floor, or it can affect just one arm/leg (‘focal seizures’). We might suffer 2-3 minutes of severe convulsions, small quick movements, split-second blanks (‘absences’) or other symptoms. If the seizures aren’t controlled by medication, they can be severe. If they’re controlled, they’re barely noticeable. Like migraines and other neurological conditions, no two people have the same experience. Mine is just an example from tens of millions.

Rewind 40 years to the late 1970s.

My long affair with the illness began with traumatic brain injury, which is the most common cause of epilepsy. I was 15 years old and cycling – without a helmet – at top speed. It was intended to be a fun afternoon of racing my cousin through the hilly English town of Lewes. It was thrilling. Until we came to a sharp corner, that is. I fell off the bike, hit my head, and lay unconscious on the road.

Shortly after that I began to experience strange ‘absences’, a kind of regular blanking out. I could hear someone or look at something familiar, without recognising it. My vision would go blurry. More than once I lost consciousness, while walking along the pavement, and stepped straight into the oncoming traffic.

Much of that school year is a blur for me, to be frank. The absences developed into a more severe kind of focal epilepsy called temporal lobe epilepsy or ‘TLE’, the same kind that the musician Prince had. I vaguely remember feelings of fear and confusion, panic attacks, scary hallucinatory experiences, and a strong sense of déjà vu. My friends tell me it was barely noticeable to them apart from the occasional jerk of my arm or leg and some incoherent mumbles. The main problem was the constant electrical thunderstorm in my head, which severely disrupted my learning throughout the 5th form – the last obligatory year at secondary school in England ending with the all-important ‘O’ level exams, as they were known.

TLE is the most common form of epilepsy in adults, yet there’s no cure, and it’s notoriously difficult to diagnose and treat. Doctors struggled to find the right medication for me. In the meantime, I drifted in and out of consciousness every few minutes due to seizures. Detached from the classroom. Adrift.

When the time came for the ‘O’ level exams, all I remember is turning over a paper and staring blankly.  You couldn’t request extra time in the exams for a medical condition in those days, which might have helped, but who knows? Anyway, I failed all eight ‘O’ levels, despite being a very high achiever at school and a regular prize-winner. It was a huge blow to my self-esteem.

The difference between having uncontrolled and controlled epilepsy is enormous. Life returns to almost normal again! So once doctors had found the right medication and my seizures were controlled, my dream was to return to school, retake my exams, and continue. Yet there was resistance at every turn: “Don’t retake the exams. They will make you ill again”; “Leave school. It’s too much for you”.  But I loved learning too much to give in. Despite the external attempts to limit my life, I retook my ‘O’ levels in the summer holidays, finished secondary school and then studied at university.

It may come as a surprise, but I didn’t experience much teasing from classmates. I suffered as a result of my teachers. It wasn’t intentional. It was a result of a lack of knowledge and awareness. One well-meaning teacher gave us a lesson in which we were invited to judge who we would employ from a selection of people, one of whom had epilepsy. She planned to challenge our choices after the activity, I assume. But it didn’t work for me. When my classmates said they wouldn’t employ the “eppy”, I ran out of the classroom in floods of tears. Another example was when I was prevented from taking part in school events “in case I caused a problem”. This meant sitting with the nurse and a boy with generalised epilepsy while our peers went to assembly, church and on school outings. While we waited indoors, we could hear our classmates laughing and screaming outside. We’d hear the engines of the school buses roar, as everyone set off for a day-trip to London.

There’s no denying that the feeling of exclusion hurt. Like every teenager, we just wanted to be ‘normal’!

The past is the past, however, and that was the late 70s.

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Kate in her late teens at university.

To be honest, my story is nowhere near as traumatic as some peoples’ stories.  Many people have lost a loved one to epilepsy. Deaths occur when people fall during a generalised seizure. They also happen as a result of SUDEP (‘sudden unexpected death in epilepsy’).  Other people have been seriously injured from burns and bruises, because of how or where they fell. Some are housebound, while others have to wear helmets to protect themselves. Finally, only about one third of people with epilepsy ever find medication to control their seizures; many others only find a partial solution, according to ‘Epilepsy Action’.

In contrast, I’ve been able to lead a healthy, happy and successful life with epilepsy for the last 40 years. Has the epilepsy gone? No, I still have a mild seizure every four to six months. These would be more severe and frequent if it weren’t for my medications. They cost a whopping 20% of my salary, but they’re worth every penny.

Life’s not perfect. An unfortunate side effect of my strong medication means I experience extreme tiredness. I suffer from panic attacks, particularly when going onstage, because I dread having a seizure while in public. Lastly, it’s a strain to ‘hide’ my epilepsy. I have to take care to avoid the six triggers (i.e. missing medication, lack of sleep, extreme stress, alcohol, drugs, and flashing lights) but avoiding trigger situations frequently means inventing excuses for why I can’t join colleagues for a drink, take part in a conference social event, or go for an evening meal. Finding the balance is the key. I try to participate as much as possible, but also have to miss out. Obviously that’s a huge shame but a small price to pay for staying healthy.

Being simultaneously careful and bold is what has enabled me to achieve so much in my life. Epilepsy hasn’t stopped me from backpacking across Latin America, volunteering in Africa, or learning to scuba dive and paraglide. Nor has it prevented me from teaching, training teachers across the world, and authoring over 25 EFL books. OK, so I can’t drive or stay up late. But I can live, love, laugh – and importantly for me, I can have a fulfilling career in ELT/education.

I hope the suggestions and tips below help a little. For now, thank you to all, especially Phil, Katherine (Bilsborough), Cheryl (Palin), Lise (Minovitz) and others for your huge support. And now please raise your glass, because I’ve done it! And it only took me 40 years! Raise it high to the millions of people with epilepsy, especially to those who don’t have the luxury of leading a full life, those who can’t find or afford medicines, and those ‘in hiding’ who may want to share!

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Patternak Quote

Seven Tips for Educators

  1. Find out the details, rather than treat everyone with epilepsy the same way. Should you have a student or trainee with epilepsy, it’s important to ask them which kind of epilepsy they have, what their symptoms are, how frequently they have seizures, and most importantly, if they are on medication.
  2. Colleagues will appreciate one question: If you have a seizure, what can I do to support you?
  3. Be aware of who doesn’t need help. People whose seizures are controlled are unlikely to need help. According to Epilepsy Action: “many children, once their epilepsy is controlled by medicine, are unlikely to need any extra support, although a side effect of the medication is to feel tired”.
  4. In terms of classroom management, consider: where we should sit (next to a friend or the door), how much we can do, and learning needs. We may need more time when taking tests or exams. What we can and can’t do depends on the type of epilepsy we have as well as whether we’re taking the right dose of medication.
  5. Understand that students may also miss your lessons due to medical appointments.
  6. Should an attack occur in the classroom, bear in mind that you won’t have any warning, and you can’t stop seizures once they start, though, you need to have a back-up plan for what to do with the rest of the class on those occasions. The person having a seizure needs plenty of air. Remove sharp objects away from the person. Stay calm, let it run its course, and give us time to come round afterwards, which might mean sitting with us for a while. You can learn ‘seizure response’ (see the video on Epilepsy Action).
  7. Be sensitive about preferred terminology. Personally I don’t feel at all offended by words like ‘turn’, ‘attack’ or ‘fit’. However, I prefer the phrase ‘people with epilepsy’ to ‘epileptics’. Epilepsy doesn’t define who we are!

Some Useful links:

Postscript: Kate is currently receiving treatment. She is exploring Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and practising mindfulness. She is beginning to see a pattern in her thinking. It is helping her enormously to talk to others in epilepsy groups, starting to share her story and raise awareness in the wider community of what it is, what it is not and what to do.

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Credits: Epilepsy Awareness Ribbon Vector Image c/o Pixabay using a CCO licence.  All other photos and images used by kind permission of Kate Cory-Wright.

Reference: Bowers, E. (2013) Overcoming the Stigma of Epilepsy. Available at https://www.everydayhealth.com/epilepsy/overcoming-the-stigma-of-epilepsy.aspx. Accessed 2 June.

English for Driving Theory

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I have just completed teaching English for the UK Driving Theory Test (EDT). This was a new venture for me and came from my employment with Norfolk Community Learning Services.  I mostly taught Syrian refugees, who have fled the conflict in their home country. They had been living in the UK for about one year when the 20-week course started. There were also two students from Algeria, one from Hungary, one from Bangladesh and one from the Congo.  I was apparently the first person in the East Anglia region to use materials devised some years ago by Stephen Woulds and Jennie Cole in Leeds, which are publicly available, with this cohort of learners.  It has been a fantastic opportunity to do something with a very specific learning aim.

Most of the students arrived in the UK as part of the government-led and financed Syrian Refugee Resettlement Programme.  In 2016, a decision was taken to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years.  It roughly worked out as 50 families per local authority.  Some of the learners came from two low-level ESOL classes which took place at the same location.  Part of their conditions of being resettled is to have English lessons, but as you could imagine, there are often absences, lateness, social or childcare problems to deal with.  When a phone rang in class it was usually something quite important such as a doctors appointment.   They were, nonetheless, highly motivated learners and apologetic if they missed class.  To be able to drive will open up both work and domestic opportunities, making life easier as they continue to settle in the UK, despite headlines like this recent one which stated that Syrian refugees have been sanctioned for taking English classes rather than trying to find work!

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The EDT material had a general scheme of work, lesson plans, a student workbook and interactive PowerPoints or Word documents.  These were put together several years ago and did not always work properly with the latest versions of Microsoft Office.  The macros were disabled. The workbooks were also designed for ESOL Entry Level 2, while most of my learners were Entry Level 1 at best.  So I had to be flexible and adapt the materials accordingly.  There was a lot of input – mostly new vocabulary.  There was no wifi in the classroom.  I bought my own laptop, my own tablet plus four borrowed Nexus tablets, onto which I had to download the PowerPoints in advance as well as making sure they were fully charged.  Always one device per pair of learners. It was a little tricky, but I managed to facilitate the interactive element most lessons.  One female Syrian student occasionally brought her own laptop and, bizarrely, by using a PowerPoint saved on a USB stick, her laptop sometimes played the ‘macro’ elements, which meant that she occasionally had the answers before anyone else.

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Most of the questions in the PowerPoints were multiple choice and based on questions from the actual theory test.  They were adapted from books such as the AA guide, which we needed to use as, with macros disabled, answers were not always available on the PowerPoints. Almost every question involved unfamiliar vocabulary, so I allowed mobile devices to be used. Translation software for single words helped the lessons move along at the pace needed to cover all the material.  I always made sure students were working in pairs or small groups and that they discussed the possible answers.  Quite often I took a ‘back seat’ and let them go at their own speed, monitoring and checking understanding as we went. I also made sure they wrote correct answers in their workbooks so that they had a record of work and could feel a sense of progress on the course. It also mattered to show evidence to the organisations (stakeholders) who fund the course. I drew on 27 years experience of driving in the UK and several years working for insurance brokerages – including one in Norwich.  Often there was something topical, such as bad weather, which made for interesting discussions.

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In the second week, my car had its MOT test and I was told that there was hardly any oil in the engine. I’m technically savvy, but not very car savvy.  What a dipstick!  Two days later I had to teach the English vocabulary for parts of the engine and, of course, where to add the oil!  Part of that lesson was spent outside, with the students all looking under the bonnet of my motor.  It felt like I was teaching at a vocational college. A later lesson involved telling the story about how I left all my own car documentation on the roof of my car after breaking down.  On another occasion, I brought in ‘realia’, such as my now dirt-covered Registration ‘Log’ Book and replacement insurance documents.  Most of them already had experience of driving in their home country, but it’s the language barrier that they need to overcome and the specific knowledge needed to take the test. They also needed practical help applying for a provisional licence and how to book lessons with a local driving instructor.

There was supplementary material, which was either done in class time or given out as homework.  We completed a lot of work on recognising traffic signs – red triangles for warnings, red circles for orders, blue circles for things that are allowed, rectangles for information and directions etc.

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Some of them borrowed or purchased a Driving Theory Test book. I recommended that, as autonomous learners, they would do better in the mock theory practice test I planned for the penultimate lesson. For this, I had to obtain several copies of the official DVSA theory driving test + hazard awareness module.  On 18 May, we had a practice test in class where two groups did a full run-through of 50 random questions.  One group scored 29 / 50 while the other group scored 21 / 50 – so both groups failed by some distance, although they managed 50 correct answers between them!  I did the same test myself  later on and just scraped a pass – 43 / 50. So even for British-born, native English speakers with lots of driving experience, it can still be a struggle to pass the test. Especially questions related to first aid treatment and what to do with a casualty in the event of a road traffic accident.  Note: I am old enough and lucky enough not to have taken the theory test before getting my full licence!

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On 25 May, all the students individually took a full mock theory test using the above test kit from the DVSA. I created this guide to the two-part test using the official DVDs.  They sat both a mock theory test and the hazard perception test (14 videos with developing hazards).  As I predicted – they all failed the theory test, with the highest score being 33/50.  None of them were able to pass on their own. This is no reflection on their progress or my teaching, but a demonstration of how far short they are of taking the real test. Lots more practice is needed using the DVDs.  However, several of them passed the hazard perception test.  This is mostly because a lot of them have driven a vehicle before, in their own country.  Higher marks are given in hazard perception for quicker reaction times.  You can score up to 5 marks on each video.

Given the difficulty of the test, in terms of both their English level and UK driving theory knowledge, it was almost impossible for these particular learners to pass at this stage. The students clearly made progress, having started off as Entry Level 1 with only few relevant words. I wasn’t at all disheartened by the scores, because I always knew it would be too difficult to achieve a pass mark in the time allowed.  They have regular ESOL classes and not much time for self-study.  But autonomous learners will do better.

It has been one of the best teaching experiences because it combined all sorts of skills.  The ability to pare down language for lower-levels, classroom management, dictionary work, simultaneous translation, eliciting, correcting and monitoring.  My driving experience and awareness of what is required to drive in the UK was essential.  In addition, it required a good knowledge and aptitude to use technology – on a range of different mobile devices.

By the end of the course all of the students were still short of passing the real theory test. However, with revision and lots of practice using the DVDs, which were given to them at the end of the course, they are getting closer to reaching their destination!

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Some of the learners taking the mock test

First Time On Grass

This is a very brief flashback post, tenuously inspired by the recent Royal Wedding in the UK.

I’ve just uploaded one song from one of the only two musical albums I’ve ever been involved in creating.  In 1993 I made a solo album called ‘So Serious’.  Most of it is not very good and is sixth form poetry at best, although I did record a cover version of Peter Gabriel’s Washing of the Water, which I recently aired on a closed Facebook group, called ‘Nightshift’.

However, two years later, I was involved in a live recording of a short-lived traditional jazz band.  It was final gig of a quintet who used to play at the Golden Fleece public house in Wells-next-the-Sea.  The members were John (Sax, Clarinet, Vocals), Ian (Guitar, landlord at the time), Nigs (Drums and heckling), Gavin (Harmonica) and myself (keys – i.e. piano).   For one night only we were called the Warham 5, as the venue was the Three HorseShoes in Warham, just outside of my hometown of Wells-next-the-Sea, in Norfolk.  It was during a beer festival at the pub.  My brother and father were in the audience.  I was 24 years old at the time.

The title of the live album came from a comment that John made the performance, about this being the first time we had played on grass – actually, AstroTurf.  But with at least one pot smoker in the band, this had a double-meaning and caused riotous laughter from the mostly drunken audience.

Anyway, here is one track from the album, entitled ‘Royal Garden Blues’, which is probably the most royal thing I’ve ever been involved in.

Walk for Parkinson’s

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On Saturday 12 May, my father and I went on a 5.5 mile sponsored walk at the Blickling Estate, Norfolk, in aid of Parkinson’s UK.  It was the first time either of us have been involved in an official event for this national charity.  My dad, Barry, who is just about to turn 73 years of age, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in December 2011. As the charity states:

“Every hour, someone in the UK is told they have Parkinson’s. Because we’re here, no one has to face Parkinson’s alone. We offer friendship, support, expert information and advice. We also fund ground breaking research into Parkinson’s and we’re leading the way to find a cure.”

Anyone that knows Barry knows that he still gets about, but he can’t do half the things he used to do or it takes a lot longer to do them. It has greatly affected his confidence, especially in social situations. Concentrating on tasks makes him shake a lot.  He shuffles rather than walks nowadays. This slowly degenerative disease doesn’t kill, but it does affect the quality of life. Dad has always been a very keen walker, but he is not as stable as he used to be. He felt motivated to do this but kept conversation on the day to a minimum, as that requires energy.

Dad was already struggling with a dodgy toe. After about one mile, Dad’s knees started hurting.  After about four miles his back went and he started walking at an awkward angle.  He collapsed under a tree around the 5 mile mark. The last half a mile were a real struggle, but he stubbornly made it to the end and even ran the last 25 metres. He recovered and is already looking forward to doing the same walk again next year!

He enthusiastically raised £165 among friends and family, while I raised a further £65 through online donations.  We will send this to Parkinson’s UK in due course.

The venue and the weather were great. All in all, it was a lovely day. A slideshow of my photos can be seen below:

 

All the official photographs can be found on this Flickr page.

Anglia 25th Anniversary Reunion

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Yesterday, I returned to my old stomping ground of Anglia Ruskin University, East Road, Cambridge.  The occasion was a 25th year anniversary of the institution being granted university status.   I attended Anglia Polytechnic University, as it was called then, for three years (1998-2001), studying single honours Sociology. I was then elected to be the Student Union Education and Welfare Executive Officer for the Cambridge campus, a role which I held for one year, before a friend of mine came along and beat me when I stood for re-election.  Probably a blessing in disguise – as I needed to get back out into the real world of work.

This was an official Alumni Office event, not an informal gathering of my fellow undergraduates.  The current Vice Chancellor, Professor Iain Martin, kicked things off and there were talks by Dr Sean Lang, Tony Kirby, Professor Viren Swami and Dr Catherine Jansson-Bond.  There were also some tours of the new campus, photo opportunities, a live band, a buffet lunch and a cake-cutting ceremony.

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For me the most important thing was to have a tour of the campus, which is almost unrecognisable from when I was a student there, and to meet up with some old mates, those on the same course as me, nearly twenty years ago.  There were several more who I would like to have seen but came away thinking that we should organise something for the actual 20th year anniversary and make it more specifically for former Sociology and Politics students from the same intake.  As I was on my way home I saw a tweet saying that a ‘honours board’ had been unveiled in Peter Taylor House – the new home of the Students’ Union.  I’m on there, of course, and was even wearing my sabbatical top yesterday, but missed out on the gathering of ex and current officers.  There is always another time, though..

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The new sabbatical executive officers board in Peter Taylor House

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My Sabbatical Top (detail)

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Some of my Sociology lecturers back in the 1980s!

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Architecture in one of the new buildings on campus

IATEFL 2018 – My Week in Brighton

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This is my report from last week’s IATEFL conference in Brighton, UK. It is a personal review of the week, not an in-depth critical review of the sessions.  I am subtitling it ‘From Memory Card Full to Mindful’.

On the Saturday before I travelled down, I was having a minor anxiety attack in Norwich. It may have been because I was presenting for the first time, but it was probably more to do with the intensity, exposure to huge numbers of people and the additional responsibilities on my shoulders, such as for the Learning Technologies SIG (Special Interest Group).  Fortunately, the coach journey to Horley (where I was staying on the Sunday evening) was broken up by popping into London Victoria coach station. In addition,  a good friend, Phil, along with his girlfriend, accompanied me. The anxiety I was feeling disappeared and I began to feel excitement instead.

After staying with Russell Stannard and sharing a beer over our respective teams 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge, I left for Brighton to attend the LT SIG pre-conference event on virtual reality and the relevance or application of it in the classroom.  It was a great event, with almost 100 attendees and six great speakers.  I especially enjoyed Paul Driver, Heike Philp and Raquel Ribeiro’s sessions.  I filmed the whole thing using the SIG camcorder, although the 8 GB memory card became full fairly early on, causing a minor headache as I tried to capture the remaining sessions using my personal back-up 16 GB card, which wasn’t being read properly at first and was problematic to extract the recordings from. Thanks to Heike for helping me on the day, as well as bringing a high-end Occulus Rift, which she set up at the back of the room.  For a proper review of the LTSIG PCE check out the roving reporter Elisa Effendy’s video review and write-up. There is also this write-up by one of the attendees, Fiona Price.  The SIG had its one face-to-face meeting of the year afterwards in the Old Ship Hotel.

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On Tuesday, my big day came.  My first ever talk at any ELT conference.  After attending two of the LT SIG showcase sessions by Jen Dobson and Sharon Hartle, I went off with my mentor, Kieran Donaghy.  He treated me to lunch and kept me calm as I went through the process of getting myself into the right mindset to give my talk.  I had already practised and recorded a version of it – which I later shared as part of an extensive write-up of my research findings.  That blog post, which I had been working on for months, finally went live about an hour before the talk at 15:55 in room 9.  Around 70 people came to a room designed to seat 60, including Rachael Roberts, who had just given a talk on ‘mindfulness’, Danny ND, Roseli Serra, Clare Maas, Michelle Hunter and several other  people I know and plenty who I didn’t.  Michael Harrison and Adam Simpson sat at the back and kept an eye on the camcorder while Graciela Alchini, as promised, filmed the whole thing from the front row using my iPad.  The results can be seen on the video page. The response was brilliant – not only from people in the room, but during the rest of the week and online.  People heard about it and people started coming up to me saying things like ‘Oh, you’re the mental health guy’!

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On Tuesday evening there was a fascinating talk by Gary Motteram on the use of mobile technologies in refugee camps and the LT SIG forum, during which we were approached by keen people wanting to be part of the SIG. This was followed by a scholarship winners gathering, which I attended along with the LT SIG winners, Julia Koifman and Elisa. This was followed by the International Quiz, in which our team came second.  I contributed mostly to the album cover round and getting the answer to the question on what connects The Buggles, Pat Benatar and Rod Stewart – note: it’s not the number of letters in their names!

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Quiz Pic: Tyson Seburn

Unlike previous conferences, I took a lot more time to go off by myself, have the occasional swim and generally do things that were unrelated to what was going on. It was not only putting mindfulness into practice but giving myself time and space to reflect on the previous intensive couple of days.  I bumped into Nick Bilbrough having fish & chips along with Rida Thabet.  I sat in on their interview with the IATEFLtalks Online team and later recorded my own interview, which I have also published on my video page.  Other things I did were to locate Quadrophenia Alley and to have a ‘mindful’ walk and ice cream, accompanied by storyteller, David Heathfield, who works for INTO in Exeter.  I managed to get to Sophia Mavridi’s talk on pedagogy, not just cool tools, but I took it a lot easier today. On Wednesday evening, I was invited to the Visual Arts Circle social event at the English Language Centre, Palmeria Mansions. I felt honoured to be included in their list of talks of current members of the VAC. Had lots of fab chats there, including ones with Janet Auckland and Shay Coyne.

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On Thursday, I went to Steve Mann’s session on Video in English Language Teaching and met up again with Russell.  I went to Roseli Serra and Tyson Seburn’s talks. Later on, I chilled outside the Hilton hotel, with Russell, Steve, Richard Smith and Ana Salvi – all from or connected to the University of Warwick.  Russell went on to play ‘Redemption Song’ at Jeremy Harmer’s ‘Songs of Love & Protest’ session, organised by Sarah Mount.  On the theme of ‘protest’ there was also this demo outside of the Brighton Centre, which I happened to take the photos for, as I was hanging around outside at the time. Solidarity with Buenos Aires – this was to do with the closure of profesorados. I later had a lovely evening meal and chat at Jamie’s Kitchen with Angelos Bollas and Sue Lyon-Jones. We bumped into Sophia Mavridi on the way back from the meal and caught up on the day’s activities.

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On Friday, there was a mindfulness session with Natalia Belousova in the same space as the scholarship winners gathering.  I then attended my one and only plenary of the week – Guyana poet, John Agard, who brought the house down with his brilliant anecdotes and recitals – most notably the incredibly topical ‘Reporting from the Frontline of the Great Dictionary Disaster’.  There is a lot of catching up to do – including some of the other plenaries and a limited number of recorded talks on the Teaching English website.

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Pic credit: Virginia Lopez Grisolia

That’s it! A brief run through the week. Quickly put together. There were other great sessions that I attended and lots of great conversations. Actually the main reason for me going is the social side, a chance to meet up with what used to be called the PLN.  I also bought quite a few books. 🙂

This storify of my tweets covers the conference + the Hands Up Project event in London on Sat 14 April.

Here’s just a handful of the hundreds of photos which I took. The focus is on meet ups with friends and experienced presenters at the conference.

 

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The Mental Health of English Language Teachers: Research Findings

The Mental Health of English Language Teachers: Research Findings

This is an extensive summary of the original research I carried out in December 2017.  It is published to coincide with a 30 minute talk at the IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) conference, in Brighton on 10 April 2018. It is my first ever presentation at any ELT conference.

Click here for a .pdf version of this post

Click here for a 25 minute, pre-recorded version of the presentation

Click here for the actual presentation – on the Video page

Click here for the final slides

Click here for a video showing how the original survey request was shared

The focus of my talk, ‘Improving the mental health of English language teachers’ changed somewhat when I received such an overwhelming response to my survey.  I carried out a pilot using a small sample of five people – the week before it went live.  I received 156 responses in just the first 24 hours of it being published on 1 December.  I closed the survey after three weeks, having received over 500 responses from teaching professionals around the world.  This includes the pilot group. Once I had removed duplicate contributions, there were 501 separate respondents or ‘informants’, making it a fairly substantial number for a research project, especially one carried out by just one person¹. As a comparison, when I carried out my dissertation thesis research in 2012, I received 108 responses. When I copied and pasted all of the responses (minus email addresses) into a word document it ran to 178 pages and over 66,600 words!

A 30 minute talk at conference is not enough time to cover the considerable amount of qualitative information contained in the survey responses.  I hope to write it up properly for journal publication at some point.  In the meantime, I present the findings here in an extensive summary of all of the questions asked, before drawing my conclusions.

Although my focus was on English language teaching, because of my proposed talk at IATEFL, the issues could be extrapolated to language teachers in general.  In fact, when I gave a webinar for International House in March, the word ‘English’ was dropped.

At all stages, I have tried to follow the British Association for Applied Linguistics recommendations for good practice.  Early on someone drew my attention to the fact that the nature of my research was highly sensitive. Disclosure could only be given if there were some reassurances. I refer to the people who responded to my survey as ‘informants’ rather than respondents. The term ‘informants’ is used to refer to those people from whom information or data is collected.  The option for informants to submit anonymously and to keep informants’ responses confidential were key considerations.  Only one person had access to the information – me!  Informants have the right to remain anonymous and their confidentiality respected.     All personal details have, thus, been removed from the quotations.  There is no naming of specific organisations or individuals. Nonetheless, around 150 informants left their contact details for two follow-up emails – 1. to inform them of a collection of blog posts  written on this topic. 2. To let them know about this post.

Brain_Tree_Roots_Psychology 2 (Pixabay)

Question 1.  What is / are your role(s) in English Language Teaching?

Informants were asked to tick as many boxes that applied to them from a list or to self-describe. The most common ones are shown below.  As you can see from the chart a significant percentage are currently teachers for at least some of their working time.

Question 1 responses 2018-02-13_14-59-55

Question 2. How long have you been in the English Teaching profession?

The second of only two questions which were not open-ended. Informants had to tick one of five boxes only.

Question 2 Chart

Question 3. Do you have or have ever had a diagnosed mental health condition?² 

Out of 490 responses, 325 said they had none or had never had a diagnosed condition – that carried out by a doctor or other medical professional.  The most common condition disclosed was ‘depression‘. 93 different informants mentioned it, discounting repeated uses.  For some this was mild, for some this was chronic. Others stated they had a major depressive disorder, and port-natal / post-partum depression. Two disclosed ‘bipolar disorder’, two mentioned the depressive mood disorder, ‘distimy‘ (Dysthymia) and one person lived with  ‘smiling depression‘.  Some of the answers were elaborated upon in question 7.

The second most common condition was some form of ‘anxiety‘. with 67 different disclosures.   9 people said simply ‘Depression and Anxiety’ or vice-versa. 9 mentioned ‘stress’. 5 said ‘generalised anxiety disorder’, while 7 said ‘panic attacks / disorder’. 8 disclosed PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) while 6 stated ‘ADHD‘. 4 stated ‘burnout’. 3 disclosed they had been medically ‘diagnosed’ with ‘suicidal ideation‘, although this is not common. 2 mentioned having had nervous breakdowns. 1 disclosed the stress-based condition, tetany, which is more physical but causes anxiety.   Many of the diagnosis were mixed with multiple diagnosis at different times. Some were also temporary, while others were more permanent.

question 3 word cloud

Question 3 keywords ³

Question 4. Do you feel you suffer from an undiagnosed mental health issue? If so, please explain your answer. ²

420 responses. The number who responded to this question was 70 less than in question 3, but there was a similar number who replied ‘no’ or ‘none’ (327).  Therefore, a large number of those who had disclosed they had a diagnosed condition in the previous question simply did not answer this one, as they felt there was nothing to add.  It is harder to categorise ‘undiagnosed’ conditions, especially when informants are asked to ‘self-describe’, but a simple word count brings up the most common ones used – see image. Again, some of the symptoms mentioned were elaborated upon in question 7.

58 used the word ‘depressed’ or ‘depression’.  49 used either the words ‘anxious’ or ‘anxiety’ in describing their symptoms.    25 used the word ‘stress’ or a variant of it.  This is higher than the previous question mostly due to the fact that stress can be commonly experienced without an actual diagnosis.  ‘Tiredness’, ‘exhaustion’ or ‘burnout’ were each mentioned a few times, but not in significant numbers.  A few people wrote other symptoms such as ‘insomnia’ and ‘short term memory loss’.  A lot of people described physical symptoms, such as a knotted stomach or headaches, that might be related to mental health but more general. Some mentioned ‘addictions’ or ‘substance dependency’ but, again, not in significant numbers, although this later comes up in the responses to question 11.

question 4 word cloud

Question 4 keywords ³

Question 5. As an employee would you feel comfortable disclosing a mental health condition upfront or in an interview?  Why / Why not?

486 responses. This key question posed a dilemma for many, though around 75-80% came down on one side.  Approximately 284 said ‘no’ before giving their reasons. Over 120 said ‘not’, ‘not really’, ‘never’ or some variation in their response.  Meanwhile, 73 said ‘yes’ before giving their reasons.

NO. The most common response was that there was a concern or worry that they would not get the job or it would affect their chances.  37 informants used the word ‘stigma’ in their reply, while others referred to the perception of disclosure.  There was a fear of the reaction for many, with some expressing that the country or culture they work in had a large bearing on this.  Many felt there would not be the required support or understanding in the workplace.  Here are just three of the responses:

“No. As a former school coordinator, I know I would think twice about hiring someone with a diagnosed mental health condition. I know it sounds harsh, but considering the business and all the responsibilities involved, it would be hard for the school to deal with such a thing. …  I’ve already dealt with a bipolar teacher in my team and it was extremely hard to do so, especially because we don’t have the right skills and information on how to best deal with the situation.”

“No. There are still too many stigmas associated with mental health concerns … it could derail a job offer or career depending on the level of stress or workload required.  Medications commonly prescribed … could also be listed as intoxicants for those wanting to marginalize and eliminate applicants.”

“No, because as someone who hired people, I know I would not want the hassle of dealing with issues. Life is stressful enough without people who may go sick, and if you have to think about students (clients), you have to protect revenue streams.”

For some it really depended on the situation.   Whilst they might not disclose upfront without a prompt, they would be prepared to mention it if it came up.

“If someone asked me a direct question I wouldn’t lie. If not, I wouldn’t bring that subject up. There’s a lot of prejudice about mental health conditions and I would rather not listen to some of the things I have listened throughout the years. It’s hard to live with this type of condition, it’s harder to live feeling many things that you shouldn’t just because you have a condition.”

YES.  A minority of informants were keen to express the importance of a condition being out in the open and express the benefits of doing so.   A few wanted to receive understanding, while fewer still were looking for empathy.  Many of those that said ‘yes’ wanted to challenge the stigma and prejudice faced.  They wanted a manager or school owners to be aware so that, if necessary, support could be put in place.  Three of the responses are shown below:

“yes – because it is nothing to be ashamed of and doesn’t really affect my work ethic the majority of the time.”

“Yes! Because I really want to work at a safe environment. I am dealing with depression because I worked at an unsafe workplace!”

“Yes. I am comfortable with who I am. I think my employer should be aware of a condition that can affect my performance, so that appropriate support is put in place. If they cannot provide such support or discriminate against me we are not a good fit.  We might as well establish that in the interview.”

Question 6. What kinds of factors do you think could be a cause of stress for English language teachers? This could be your own or a colleague’s experience. 

With 501 responses and over 13,000 words, every informant had something to say on this question. It generated the biggest response of all the questions and could be a blog post on its own or a journal article. It is difficult to succinctly summarise the factors, because of the length of the qualitative answers given.  Professor Sarah Mercer advised me on the wording of this question. I have heard her talk more recently about stress being a perception – quoting from Chris Eyre’s book, ‘The Elephant in the Staffroom’, which was published in 2017 : Stress - Perception 2018-03-20_15-18-48

question 6 wordcloud

Question 6 keywords ³

The image above shows the most common words used. The bigger the word, the more it featured in the responses. We can clearly pick out ‘students’, ‘hours’, ‘management’, ‘lack’, ‘support’, ‘expectations and ‘workload’, but these need putting into context.   Many of the factors included personal attributes and perceptions – such as homesickness and perfectionism.  A couple mentioned ‘Imposter syndrome’ – a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalise their accomplishments and have a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’, which I’ve certainly been guilty of. Here’s a few examples:

“Culture shock, homesickness, adapting to a new school environment, heavy workload, long hours, demanding students, poor management.  ELT teachers abroad sometimes seem to run away from problems taking up another contract in another country, not putting down any roots.”

“Not enough support, too much pressure, too much admin, too many meetings, striving for perfection, not many negative comments and not enough praise or confidence building, that feeling of not knowing what you’re doing and that there’s no one who can help you without revealing the weakness, lack of time management and organisation.”

“Homesickness – Long hours – Poor time management/no time management guidance – Overwork – Perfectionism – A lack of support in their workplace – A lack of a wider support network”

“Imposter syndrome in a competitive environment”

However, it is during the responses to this question that we also see the emergence of external factors, rather than internal mental health issues.  Many informants expressed a combination of internal and external factors, but examples of the latter include:

  • Workload
  • Poor working conditions / environment
  • Misbehaving students
  • Unmotivated students
  • Job Insecurity
  • Poor Pay
  • Lack of appreciation
  • Lack of support
  • Unrealistic expectations – e.g. student progress in  a short space of time.
  • ‘Absurd’ or abusive contracts
  • Large class sizes
  • Culture shock / differences
  • Constant observations (by school owners / managers)
  • Harassment / Bullying

Workload (42 mentions), job insecurity (17) and working conditions (28) were also frequently raised.  Here are a few selected responses which reflect this:

“I think poor and unstable working conditions, instability caused by moving from one country to another quite regularly, pressure to ‘perform’ in the classroom and always seem to be happy and in a good mood even when you are not, are all factors.”

“In my experience the stress doesn’t come from the classroom but from the working conditions which are worse everyday in private language teaching.”

“Irregular working hours, job insecurity, lack of teaching hours resulting in less income, irregular payment, no sick pay meaning having to go into work sick, no holiday pay.”

“A heavy workload, poor work and pay conditions, boss and peer pressure.”

“Ridiculous workloads that always seem to increase; non-teaching management who don’t understand what teachers do; decreasing hours for face-to-face contact with students; stressed/anxious/upset/traumatised students (difficult to set boundaries when you care); keeping up with best practice methodology and pedagogy, change in technology, etc.”

“Workload. Hours. Emotional demands and expectations. Marking. Prep work. Travel. The list is endless….”

“Unfair/difficult working conditions, professional instability, irrational expectations from employers, general social underestimating of my profession, working load that isn’t reflected in work pay. The latter is a main cause of frustration and feelings of depression”

“The insecurity of the work as so many are on hourly contracts. Also the fact that as teachers we are often not allowed to express and work as we feel best as there is so much pressure to be the entertainer as opposed to the facilitator, and to tick so many necessary boxes. So many schools want the teachers to integrate things into their practice which are solely to please the students to ensure that they keep coming back and paying the money. As the vast majority of this industry is all about profits instead of about people then that is always going to have a detrimental affect on any employees mental health when we consider our everyday moods and emotions as part of what makes up mental health.”

Many informants submitted mini life stories, which included unfair dismissal and bullying.  Here are a few extracts:

“In my past experience stress has usually been caused by the unrealistic expectations of bosses and school-owners who are not themselves teachers and who have little knowledge of / sympathy for the realities of teaching.”

“bullying from colleagues (this was on-going from a teaching colleague who incidentally does have a diagnosed MH condition)”

“In general, not having job security and not being paid enough. Personally, I was bullied by my DOS (and others were bullied by her, too, I later found out). There was no support for teachers and upper management supported the DOS because she was in a management position.”

“Bullying. Unfair dismissals. Unsupportive environments. Poor contracts. Worsening pay and conditions. Union member victimization… perhaps the worst thing is the fear ex-colleagues and current colleagues demonstrate by turning down their relationships and rapport with you if you get on the wrong side of the boss. I think this is particularly bad in ELT because the precarious nature of the rotating staff room in the schools I have worked at. The best way to lose friends and your income is to criticise an initiative. There is also the constant pressure to work hours far beyond your wildly optimistic ‘contact hours’ with students. You cannot keep your job if you work like that and yet you cannot hold down another job if you do- and the owners’ seemingly collective agreement to slowly stagnate wages makes ELT untenable. I have retrained but can’t enter another field because of a separate issue. My only hope is that the sector is regulated in the future.”

Question 7. Have you ever had a mental health issue (either diagnosed or undiagnosed) in the workplace which affected your attendance or performance? ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. If ‘Yes’, how did this affect you?

501 responses. 301 simply said ‘no’ or similar. 36 simply said ‘yes’. Again, it is difficult to summarise approximately 160 responses to the second part of the question as they were individual responses to their own situation.  Again, there were stories of workplace anxiety, panic attacks, severe depression leading to lesson cancellations, time off work, no sympathy for feeling burnout, insomnia, PTSD flashbacks, being hospitalised and resignations.

Here are some examples:

“I was signed off by the doctor due to depression and panic attacks. The fear of going back to work and picking up all the mess you left behind made it worse, it was almost better to try and do the impossible- stay in work and try to continue.”

“I was under a great deal of stress as academic coordinator and this was causing me a l lot of anxiety and insomnia which meant I was able to carry out my administrative and managerial functions well.”

“In my first year of teaching towards the end I was feeling exhausted and although I enjoy teaching for this particular school in the sense that I have a sense of belonging and it helps its teachers to self-actualise and it bolsters their self-esteem, it still got to a point where I cried while at school once or twice. The demands of the job and the low pay mean that I can’t move closer to my workplace – I would either have to take on a full time job which is very intense, or have to pay an entire month’s salary for the rent. So I live further away from the school, which drives up my commute time. It is a catch-22 situation.”

“I once had a supervisor who was manipulative and emotionally abusive to staff. I was one of many who left in quick succession due to their behaviour. They would use supervision time to berate you and drop unfounded accusations against you. I frequently woke up worrying what they were going to accuse me of that day.”

“It didn’t affect attendance. But I don’t understand what you mean by ‘in the workplace’. If you have suffered from depression, it’s 24 hours a day so I would not classify it as ‘in the workplace’. It is difficult to say whether my depression (or depressive episodes)  affected my ‘performance’. I couldn’t simplify it in those (management speak) terms. I would say it affected my ability to feel things fully and live a happy life. My ‘performance’ wasn’t at the top of the list of concerns.”

Question 8. If you answered ‘yes’ to the previous question could you say whether you felt supported in the workplace and in what ways?

Around 200 responses.  Understandably, only those that had been affected in the workplace answered this question. There were several examples of support, such as line managers willing to listen, colleagues who helped or didn’t raise uncomfortable questions, timetables changes and being allowed time off work with no consequences.

Here’s one positive comment, which echoes my own reason for carrying out the research in the first place:

“Yes, my team at the university were amazing. Other lecturer’s who have also suffered from a similar experience talked to me. I was able to see a staff councellor. It was the first time that I shared my own issues with anxiety as, for the past 10 years of working here, I had kept any problems to myself. I feel a lot better for being open about it. I have also been looking into doing research into teacher anxiety in ELT. I have noticed, in general education it is a much talked about subject but there is so little information in the ELT industry. At the university I am a teacher trainer and I deal with ever increasing numbers of teacher trainees who really struggle with anxiety and depression. I feel as a trainer, if I could be more open about the subject it might help my trainees. I would express that I love my job as a teacher AND I suffer from anxiety. I haven’t reached the stage of being able to do that yet but it is something that I am interested in doing. I would especially like to be able to talk about my experience in a positive way and provide research findings on the topic. I feel very strongly that this is something that can help people who are teachers or are training to be teachers in ELT.”

However, the majority of responses revealed that they did not feel supported.  Many did not fully explain what was wrong or how they were suffering for fear of reprisals or just tried to get on with things.  ‘Support’ can often be quite unsympathetic.  Being given less responsibility may be fine for some, but not being trusted or given a lighter workload can have a negative affect, too.  Here’s a selection of responses:

“No, I kept quiet and handled it myself.”

“No. I just got told to prioritise my workload!”

“Some were encouraged to quit and did just that.”

“I had to take three months off work. I was supported by HR but absolutely not by my management. I work for a large organisation and I had six hours of counselling with staff counselling services.”

“I was not supported at all. My line manager made various statements which lacked sensitivity, ‘You’re a big guy, you’re not the type to cry’, ‘You do it to everyone (in reference to accusations of aggressivity as a result of raising my voice), ‘Cheer up’, ‘Don’t be so negative’; etc. I had become upset at various problems with timetabling where I was informed the same day of timetable changes resulting in no lunch break or course changes that resulted in students feeling aggrieved and directing their angst at me.”

“Whenever I openly said how stressed the job was making me feel, I was bullied into believing that I was the problem. However after my resignation, the school hasn’t yet found a replacement (it’s been 4 months now) and its performance and reputation have plunged.”

“No, but that may be because I didn’t tell anyone I was depressed. I have to admit, though, that I’ve always somewhat resented that no one in my immediate team ever mentioned that I was unusually tired, cranky, stressed or distracted and offered me any kind of support. Yet they clearly responded in other (punitive) ways, like avoiding including me in new projects, which – when I asked why – they explained by saying they were trying to help as I seemed quite stressed. They just made that decision for me and would have said nothing if I hadn’t asked. It felt like adding insult to injury.”

“As a freelancer there is no support!”

Question 9. If you are an employer or a manager, how confident do you feel at recognising symptoms of poor mental health in teachers?

This had a lower responses of 181 because the target was employers or managers. 35 said ‘very confident’, while another 14 said ‘fairly confident’ and 6 ‘somewhat confident’.  Experience of being a manager or personal experience of poor mental health had a bearing on the degree to which informants expressed this. It gets difficult when people try to hide their symptoms and don’t disclose anything. Some examples are below:

“Fairly confident but it is a very tricky area and people go out if their way to hide symptoms.”

“I believe I am fairly good at recognising poor mental health either due to my own personal experience or from having observed others”

“Very confident. I am very familiar with signs of mental health care in teachers, and I encourage them to maintain balance, mental space, and coping mechanisms for stress and [feeling] overwhelmed.”

“I feel confident that I can tell when I see someone in person, but we often manage teams at centres remotely and that can be difficult. I am unable to support someone if I don’t know there is a problem which is obviously very frustrating.”

“I feel competent at recognising symptoms but due to the complexity of mental health disorders and the stigma attached (as well as for suffers own piece of mind) the person will likely have innovated way to cover up signs in public . One such example is that of depression, a person suffering may intermittently act distant or absent-minded however, they will likely smile through most of the time. In addition to this, I wouldn’t feel confident expressing concern for fear of the other person in case they are actually fine or don’t want the attention.”

A similar overall number to above admitted that they were not or not at all confident or expressed some doubts. Reading the signs or interpretation of symptoms is not easy for some:

“I’m not sure. Some people are very adept at hiding mental health issues.”

“I’m mostly aware of staff wellbeing but some disorders may not be easily detected.”

I think I read people pretty well and hope that I am a supportive colleague. I can read people better, I think, as I age myself and come across more and more different younger people…. but the real problems are often disguised by other symptoms.”

“Not that confident. I feel I would need proper training. What the behavioural psychological model favoured by management theories assumes is that mental health issues in the workplace are visible & somehow affect colleagues and also performance. Only then is it considered an issue. It also assumes a certain way of behaving in the workplace. I think we need to approach mental health in a much more holistic way.”

Question 10. Have you ever received training in how to support teachers’ mental health? If so, can you describe the kind of training you received.

228 responses.  153 simply said ‘no, ‘none’ or ‘never’ to this question, while some elaborated a little on this with a further comment.  Quite a few said this would be useful, interesting or that they were keen to have training.  Some had taken some training outside of ELT or general workshops about recognising problems.  A handful of informants had studied psychology and a few were trained counsellors.  Several referred to some kind of ‘safeguarding’ training, but not specifically mental health. One had ‘suicide safe talk’ training. Answers were brief and there was generally not much experience for informants to disclose here. I’ve picked out a few comments:

“I’ve never received that kind of training.”

“Only from picking things up from blogs and talking about mental health issues”

“I have received ‘suicide safe talk’ training, which aims to create ways in which to recognise and broach mental health with individuals, not teachers per se.”

“I have actually held a workshop for teachers in our language school on emotional burnout for them to recognize the symptoms quite early and to know what to do later on.”

Question 11. If you have suffered any mental health issues, do you have any tactics or coping mechanisms to deal with any symptoms you might have suffered with?

376 responses. The next two questions overlapped in terms of how informants answered them.  I did not simply want to highlight problems or issues in the survey but ways of dealing with those.  This question asked about tactics and mechanisms for coping.  I was interested to discover how people deal with some of the stresses.  Tactics are generally positive methods and steps taken to alleviate or deal with the stresses of work.  Coping mechanisms are generally ways of getting through a situation and not necessarily a healthy option.  However, the responses reflect the wording of the question and could have been satisfactory answers for the following question. Both are about management of the symptoms experienced.

Medication can certainly be viewed as coping device.  An exact number who use pills or prescribed drugs was difficult to calculate because this was expressed in different ways. Some simply said ‘I take medication’, while others stated ‘I take antidepressants’. Some referred to ‘treatment’, while a fair number wrote of therapy or counselling.  23 said that used meditation, while 14 mentioned mindfulness.  Exercise (34) featured highly. 16 said they took long walks or walking away from the situation if it gets too much.  Talking to friends (22), Yoga (10), breathing techniques (11) were other tactics.  How to deal with panic attacks was described by some, either with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or getting control of one’s breathing and managing racing thoughts.

I thought that drinking alcohol (10) and smoking (3) would feature more prominently. Drinking in moderation is particularly commonplace as a coping device and for relaxation. People enjoy it.  Drinking in excess, leading to addiction can cause its own problems. But the survey results didn’t reflect this.

question 11 word cloud

Question 11 keywords ³

Here are a selection of comments:

“I try to meditate at night. I also go outside and get some fresh air and sunshine. It is important for me to be alone and recharge when I am suffering from symptoms.”

“I try to walk away from situations if I can and tell people I’ll come back to them later when I’m calmer/more able to deal with situations. If I notice myself getting stressed I give myself a talking to and tell myself to focus on positives or on breaking down the things I need to do so that they’re more manageable.”

“Yoga, meditation, medication both self and prescribed, detachment, breathing, mindfulness, psychology, self forgiveness, acceptance, gardening, friends. However I think when the demands are greater than the ability to address, these measures are band aids.”

“Drugs. Rest. Therapy. Ultimately for me though, the most effective treatment was to quit that company. I feel much better now!”

“When I get tremors I start turning a 20c coin in my pocket or playing with a pen to distract my brain into what’s ‘normal’.”

“Walking away from the problem for half an hour.  Getting out of the environment to a place where you can spend some time collecting your thoughts and analysing the problem before heading back.  Ranting with a colleague is an effective way to release stress for me.  Having that time to air your issues with others who may have the same feelings validates the problems you might be having and as such allows you to work through them together.”

“Lots of self awareness practices… Shadow work… Rituals… Music… Calming things… And I know it sounds bad but a glass of wine at the end of a hard day doesn’t hurt”

“I have a psychiatrist and psychologist who work with me on restructuring my cognitive functions, I have medication to stop me from trying to commit suicide and I cancel classes when it gets too much”

“I smoke marijuana as a way of making sure I sleep properly. It also helps me relax after work.”

Question 12. In what ways do you look after your own mental wellbeing as a teacher?

486 responses. This is another key question which sought to explore how ELT professionals maintain their wellbeing and positive mental health.  A large proportion of informants used this question to elaborate or build on comments made in the previous one.  Both are about managing conditions. So, there was a fairly substantial overlap in the kinds of responses for these two questions.

If ELT professionals are to improve their own mental health, it is critical to know they are not alone, can talk about this and learn from others.  Like many other questions in this survey, the extensive responses could be the basis of a separate blog post.  When I titled my talk I used the word ‘Improving’ (the mental health of English Language Teachers) as it is not enough just to present problems but try to offer some ‘solutions’, but this is often easier said than done.

Again, exercise (64) featured prominently in the responses, but issues to do with time management and work-life balance were also frequently mentioned.  Looking after one’s physical self can have a huge impact on one’s mental health. Therefore, diet and eating well, getting enough sleep and having a life outside of work were all factors mentioned a lot here.  Taking time off or variations on this expressed a necessity to separate work from leisure or family time.  Again, some kind of meditation (25) was practised by some.  It appeared for some that if there were in control and organised at work, the rest falls into place.  Generally, though, this was an opportunity to discuss all those things outside of work that can act as a counterbalance.

question 12 word cloud

Question 12 keywords ³

Again, here is just a small selection of the substantial, qualitative responses:

“Try to ensure good work/life balance, have a good circle of friends/support network to talk to if need be.”

“Always being well-prepared. Trying to avoid over-working and perfectionism. Trying to find time to leave the office at lunch time and not eat at the desk while working”

“I try to eat right, I try to get enough exercise (fitness trackers are helpful) I try to get all my work done before spending quality time with my partner (long distance relationship) so I can focus on that aspect of my life.”

“Meditation, yoga, exercise, leaving work on time, don’t look at emails at the weekend, talk to other teachers.”

“I avoid bringing coursebooks home for the weekend and preparing lessons very late in the evening or, let’s say, on Saturday. I also avoid checking work-related messages after I finish work on Friday and do not usually give my phone number to students.”

“I do hip hop dancing.”

“My wellbeing depends on long walks and meditation, plus time to myself for reading, massage, cooking, binge watching on Netflix”

“Try to be as much organized as I can so I don’t have bad surprises. Practice yoga. Build a strong rapport with my students.”

“Trying to have time off, for example by going to the cinema [or] dance classes once a week – it’s something completely different. Trying to plan food and cook for myself whenever possible so that I’m eating healthily. Making sure I have routines in the evening to calm me down so that I can get a good night’s sleep … mental and physical health are so intermingled.”

“One of the things that has helped me a great deal is my faith.  That has had a huge impact on so many things, on schools I’ve chosen to work for, the people I’ve met, the way that we have gone about coping with difficult situations and resolving them and on my own internal mental health.  It’s probably been the single, biggest impact. When the situation becomes too intolerable I then review the time and the method in which I leave it, when really it’s run its course or when the situation is just too bad.  So I do have an internal regulation mechanism.  My faith and ongoing thing for the small things and my ‘it’s time to go’ mechanism for the bigger things.”

Question 13. In what ways do you feel that employers and institutions within ELT could support the mental health or wellbeing of its employees?

With 466 responses and a total of over 10,000 words, the length of answers here was second only to the earlier question about the factors which cause stress.  It also builds upon the answers given in that question, which were a mixture of individual circumstances and external issues.  The focus on this question is squarely on what the employer or institution could do. It also has ramifications for line managers, director of studies and others responsible for maintaining employee mental health.   Informants really took to answering this question in some detail.

‘Training’ featured highly (61 mentions).  Many of those in positions that could support teachers are not sufficiently trained in this area.  Recognising signs or symptoms came up in question 9 and some managers feel confident in this area. However, overall a lack of knowledge and training in this area was highlighted by many. A couple of examples are shown below:

“They could organise FREE training sessions for stress-management or mindfulness and be available when needed.”

“Acknowledge the condition, training sessions on dealing with stress, training on time management, training on lesson planning more effectively, provide resources”

Counselling featured in many answers (31) along with awareness (30).    A few institutions already provide this, more commonly available for students, but it requires trained staff.   A lack of training current exists in the sector.  Again, here are a few examples:

“Offer counselling services for staff. Increase transparency between teaching and non-teaching staff to avoid any miscommunication. Put teachers above profit. Don’t hire people because they sound good but actually get them to prove it first (I’m talking about the business management of schools here).”

“Make sure that there are supports in place for people to share concerns, get help (counselling). Have presentations/workshops about mental health. Have workshops about how to deal with multitude of concerns students might bring to class – information and process so students can be referred to appropriate mental health supports. Management should be open to receiving feedback about requirements that cause stress, recognize that stress in teaching is real and not minimize or dismiss concerns, keep lines of communication open.  Helps to have union representation that ensures there is accommodation in case of need.  Management should also have access to support.”

“Hold regular out-of-workplace trainings and awareness sessions, whether to analyze oneself or others. Usually people learn about themselves by gaining experience from others, so this would help greatly.”

Pay (32), working conditions (15) and job security (10) were some other key issues raised:

“Besides raising awareness, if teachers were better paid, they’d need to work less, which would go a long way.”

“By providing better pay to work ratio and more job security and by having more realistic expectations of the time teachers should spend working.”

“Trainings and retreats sound like a great idea. Job security, solid pay, and plenty of paid non-teaching time. Having an immediate supervisor/manager who is a teacher and acts as an advocate for teachers (as opposed to having an adversarial relationship with teachers, which unfortunately seems to be common).”

“Respect teaching as lifelong career. Support teachers struggling with managers and owners who are clearly suffering from exploitative employment. Create special interest groups supporting and networking teachers struggling for safe pay, conditions, and terms of employment. Work to free teachers from discrimination. Recognise our rights and advocate for them.”

Some more responses are shown below:

“Acknowledging the HUMAN in Human Resources???”

“Being supportive overall, valuing their time and their human capital helping them find mental health services”

“By recognising that teachers are already overwhelmed by their current workload and that much of the admin can be shifted to other staff.  Not requiring onerous compliance or evidence of suitability to teach once job is secured; if you are qualified you shouldn’t have to justify your position. Recognising that teachers require time to plan and design lessons, particularly in institutions that do not have set course materials or resources. By providing adequate resources. Having support staff to deal with enrolment, course completion and student counselling.”

“Being aware of the need to support people is a very important first step. Being open to discussions and opening discussions, so that mental health and wellbeing are not taboo, but are a part of the day-to-day operations of the institution. Recognising that mental health is just as important as physical health – if someone has a physical health problem, it’s OK to take time off, but this is often not considered as acceptable as if they have a mental health problem. Encouraging teachers to have a life outside work, including setting up social events if necessary, especially for teachers living abroad who may find it hard to integrate in the local community, especially if they don’t speak the language.”

However, not everyone felt that something could be done by institutions, with one offering this retort to the above:

“It’s not up to the ELT industry, it’s up to the individual (or their friends or family). It’s silly and redundant to try to integrate this into the ELT industry – another useless branch – it’s like taking care that your employers have a balanced diet and investing money and human resources into trainings to recognise if they don’t and how to react to it. Stop worrying about stuff that’s so obviously not ELT related.”

question 13 word cloud

Question 13 keywords ³

Question 14. Do you have any other views on this topic which are not covered by the previous questions?

188 responses.  The final question was very open and not specific to one area. Informants took the opportunity to add some final comments.  Many took the chance to show gratitude for the topic being raised and discussed.  Some wanted to extend earlier responses and highlight the most important issue for them. Here is a selection of the extensive responses:

“Thank you for researching this topic. I have often thought of sharing my experience but was held back by the possible repercussions for my career. I am thus glad to have the opportunity to do so anonymously.”

“You can still teach! Mental health should not be a hindrance, and I am sad that i lost what i loved doing. Others shouldn’t lose what they love because of mental health.”

“I have worked in quite a few ELT organisations/companies, and I have seen more understanding/support towards teachers’ mental health in government agencies , and pretty much non-existent in large, private companies.”

“I’m worried that too much of a focus on the psychology and well-being of teachers detracts from the broader systemic issues that cause these issues in the first place”

“I really love teaching and my only complaints and my only issues come from the working conditions in which I do my job.”

“Until teachers are treated as people and not commodities then the whole mental health issue in EFL is not going to change. It’s all about people over profits. And that’s how the industry runs. It sounds terribly pessimistic but having seen so many institutions and how they work on the inside, it just seems to be a recurring theme.”

“In a capitalist society stressing out people gives business the edge to make people feel like they can always do more and to create competition to the point where people give up and suffer from stress and worry.”

“ELT seems to becoming increasingly corporate. I have worked with a government funded migrant settlement program for the last four years and in that short time have seen it become less about teaching new arrivals what they need to start out in our country and more about justifying our funding by proving that we are achieving measurable results. Teaching has become data collection and teaching to the assessment rather than meeting student needs.”

“Suffering from a mental health issue does not mean that you are unable to do your job, it just means that at times you would appreciate more support, understanding and tolerance from others. In attempting to cover a problem up, one only adds to the stress that already exists in dealing with such an issue.”

“Teachers are human beings and feel down in the dumps when their work isn’t appreciated by those who they work with and give heart to (I mean students). Language courses are unfortunately full of people who don’t give a toss about studying and learning. But they’re still accepted. Moreover, they strongly believe paying money and making no effort are the key to become knowledgeable and full of new skills.” [see note:4]

“The single most important factor in teachers’ well-being and mental health is the support network (academic and, especially, social) of their colleagues. Relatively similar workloads in different schools have had a very different impact because of this single factor, and it is in the interest of schools (in terms of recruitment and retention, as well as performance) to foster a healthy and supportive working environment. Many schools do a fantastic job with this already. Others, unfortunately, have a long way to come.”

“We deal with people every day of our lives. However, authorities neglect the emotional charge that this involves. In this profession, there is an overwhelming focus in techniques and approaches, but the teacher as a person is totally ignored. They ask us to be “empathetic” with students, but don’t tell us how, and, what is worse, no one shows empathy to the teacher. No one coaches us on how to cope with the different types of behaviour we encounter every day, or with our own reactions or emotions. Sadly, this is all taken for granted.”

“What about working with people with mental health issues? This is not covered in this survey and can be a problem in many ways not least due to lack of training of colleagues and also the fear – with or without reason – of having to cope with their workload if they don’t cope.”

One male informant, part of my original small sample of five people, extended their answers to several questions – in particular number 2 (below) and went on to detail two specific times of their life when they had been affected by poor mental health, which I have left out because they are very personal.

“I have been in ELT for nearly 10 years but overall in Teaching for 30 years.  In one way maybe “regular” teaching is more stressful because you are faced with the conflicting demands of your head, your students and government directives. At least in ELT you are only faced with the first two. Although in ELT you often have the additional stress of going to work in a foreign country where it can be much harder to hit the ground running with the right support network. In our native country we have the familiarity of the culture and the support network of family and well established friends so if its too much or we can’t make a decision we have people we can turn to. Personally I was fortunate I feel that I chose to go into ELT [much] later, I had lived and and travelled a lot so was more ready to deal with the pressure. Perhaps the older you are the quicker you rely on yourself to sort out your head because the disadvantage is it does take longer to get to know people when you are in a new place.”

Conclusions

With 501 individual responses to this survey in just three weeks, the topic clearly hit a nerve with many in the English language teaching profession.  It was widely shared in a short space of time.  It managed to draw out some qualitative responses from many who had suffered from poor mental health in the past and still do.  It also received contributions from those who had no direct experience, but worked in the profession and were curious to know more.  Many submissions dealt with historic difficulties whilst others referred to ongoing issues.  Lots of suggestions and tactics were shared on ways of managing or maintaining positive mental health, as well as recommendations for the ELT industry as a whole.

I have attempted to include a wide range of responses and commentary for all 14 questions in the survey.  I have tried to highlight some of the key issues and possible remedies.  I have tried to represent the wide-ranging views shown and attempted to show balance. However, I am aware that in selecting quotations and not referencing informants’ answers, I still may not have been able to fully represent the significant response received to the survey request. It does, nonetheless, give a fairly comprehensive snapshot of the state of language teacher mental health and some particular issues felt in ELT.

The survey does not deal with the question of whether teachers go into language teaching with existing conditions, which are then exacerbated by the conditions they face.  So it would be unwise to draw any conclusions that the profession causes poor mental health.  Nonetheless, some of the working conditions and experiences expressed do not seem to help.  There was a lot of anecdotal evidence, which showed that those who have suffered in some way, had learned how to deal or cope with the situation or walked away.   Many informants had clearly developed ways of looking after themselves, while others sought to blame factors outside of their immediate control.  For many language teaching professionals, there has been a feeling or perception that they are the ‘problem’, not the external context of their employment.

Whilst sympathy can be given to institutions needing to have a reliable workforce, the constant strive to be competitive and the business demands of many workplaces can lead to teachers being undervalued, mere commodities in the process.   We are people, not disposable ‘human resources’.  As one person stated, “Until teachers are treated as people and not commodities then the whole mental health issue in EFL is not going to change.”

One informant stated quite clearly that “mental health is not something that should be discussed, it is something that should be treated”.  My own view is different.  Whilst treatment is recommended, be it medication or therapy of some kind, not talking about it is clearly not the way forward.

I have had mental health training with Norwich Mind. I am also an advocate for Time To Change, which seeks to address the stigma and discrimination around mental health issues. No one should have to face a mental health problem alone.  The discussion around this topic must be open and continue until we reach the point of it being ‘normalised’.

  • Phil Longwell – 10 April 2018

What’s next?  A proper journal write-up which includes a review of other research.  A chapter in a book. A whole book?   Let me know your thoughts, suggestions and feedback in the comments section.  You can continue the conversation here or reflect on this piece of research with your own post. Also, please feel free to share this but please give credit.

For referencing purposes, you could write this and the date accessed:

Notes:

  1. Incidentally, a survey last year by the Education Support Partnership and carried out by professional researchers, YouGov, looking at the mental health and wellbeing of UK education professionals – that’s all areas, not just language teaching – received 1,250 responses.
  2. For questions 3 and 4, I miscounted the number of appearances of the two main key words – depression, anxiety – when I made the slides for and presented my webinar on 7 March.  These were corrected for my talk. The figures shown here represent the correct frequency, once I have allowed for spelling mistakes, included multiple uses and discounted repeated use of the same word by the same informants.
  3. The word clouds have were generated using a Google add-on.  In using word clouds and word counts in the body of the text I have tried to show the frequency of key terms. Although I have done my best to accurate reflect this frequency, spelling errors or badly typed responses mean that the figures shown for each term used are probably underestimated.
  4. Kudos to the person who used the expression, ‘down in the dumps’, which was the title of a song I wrote when I was about nine years old.